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ASU Law, Diné College partner on 1st legal program affiliated with a tribe

The Navajo Nation, Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and Diné College recently established the world’s first tribally-affiliated legal education program.

The new four-way program’s goal is to address a shortage of legal professionals within the Navajo Nation.

Law School dean Stacy Leeds said it’s the result of a long-standing partnership between the college and Navajo Nation.

“It really has been decades in the making, where Navajo people have recognized the needs in their own communities and wanted to advance toward making something like this,” she said.

While the program has been a long time coming, Leeds said it represents a step forward and an expression of Navajo sovereignty.

“Growing a program like this to help keep that alive but also give it new energy so that it is retained throughout these next generations is why this was also so important,” said Leeds. “Because so many other tribes have lost the foundation of their legal systems and their laws through colonization and through time. And Navajo Nation has been able to hold on, and in a powerful way, to their traditional legal systems. That's why it's extra special that Navajo Nation is the leader in this.”

Diné College leadership created the first-ever bachelor's in law program at a tribal college. According to Leeds, it provides a foundation for the rest of the collaboration and treats tribal law as an evolving, living thing.

“It's all constantly changing, but you've got those really important foundations that make you who you are,” Leeds said.

“Navajo Nation is looked upon by other tribes all over the country,” said Leeds, because it has things like its own bar exam and its “own legal system that is very uniquely Navajo.” Unlike other programs, she said, this one will truly center tribal law.

“It will be truly homegrown Navajo advocates, lawyers and leaders,” Leeds said. “But we’ll all be working together to make sure we get this right.”

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.